Recently, there have been discussions within the engineering faculty at the university to dissolve the cohort class system that is currently in place for all students. The current system, with some exceptions for technical electives, has students of the same discipline attend the same classes as their classmates throughout the tenure of their four year academic degree. The proposal to abandon this system, one that is very rare throughout engineering faculties nationwide, is likely motivated by a desire to increase freedom of choice for students. This would enable students to choose when they take certain core courses, and likely eliminate some of the mandatory courses for certain programs in favour of creating a broader range of specialization. Although a greater freedom of choice in terms of selecting our classes is something that all of us have desired at some point throughout our education, I argue that the advantages of our current cohort system are far greater than the new-found freedom that would be introduced by scrapping it.
From my personal experience and those of my fellow students, I believe there are basically two places where first-year students meet future friends: residence and class. Of course, dissolving the cohort system would have little to no effect on the residence experience, but it would certainly greatly reduce the chances of making lasting friendships in your classes. Instead of spending close to 40 hours a week with the same group of people, all the while developing camaraderie and sharing the trying experience of first-year engineering, one would simply see one group of people for an hour, then move to another class room with a fresh round of students. This, of course, is the experience of most universities in Canada. The decreased likelihood of making close friends is considerable. In the non-cohort system you can easily slip into your class for an hour without speaking a word to anybody else. In the cohort system, however, you not only spend close to four hours straight with the same group of people, you also have ten minute breaks between each lecture. Also, students share the same lunch hour. This system not only encourages conversation between classmates, but almost forces it.
One of the greatest advantages that I have found in engineering at Waterloo has been the lack of cutthroat students, willing to put the success of others on the line for their personal academic success. The widely held belief amongst university students is that this attitude is much more prevalent in other large universities in Canada. I believe the cohort system plays a large role in preventing this from occurring at Waterloo. Those that are unkind or overly competitive are generally dismissed by the rest of the class, and are either forced to change their attitude, or face social isolation for the remainder of their academic career while in class. In other schools where the cohort system is not in place, there is less accountability as cutthroat students can merely sabotage one classmate, then after the semester never have to see them again. In my opinion, the cohort system weeds out the jerks much more quickly.
To build on this, the cohort system exemplifies a workplace much more then a non-cohort system. You attend class with the same people everyday, select classmates from the same pool of students every semester for projects, and ultimately you learn to share knowledge, work together and learn from each other’s mistakes, all the while working towards the goal of graduating. Unlike other non-cohort systems, you share your goal with a large group of like-minded classmates.
Furthermore, failing holds much more consequence in the cohort system. Some of my greatest motivation has come from the fear of having to repeat a term without my closest friends and the familiarity of my class. Some may point out that I should be motivated enough by the simple goal of losing $10,000 or spending an extra year of your life redoing classes you’ve already taken, but for many it is the risk of losing their social group that is the motivation to put in that crucial extra hour of studying.
Moreover, the logistics of organizing extra help sessions and dealing with class-wide academic issues become a lot simpler in the cohort system. All of your classmates share the same schedule, so getting help for the entire class at a proper time is quite easy. Also, any issues you have with professors or exams is likely shared by classmates, making your voice more powerful and more likely to be heard by faculty staff. Professors are also held accountable for mistakes and poor teaching because it is much easier for a class that spends entire days together to come to a consensus on problems then a room full of students who see each other only three times a week for short periods of time.
Above all, however, the biggest disadvantage of removing the cohort system would be the removal of shared experiences for engineering students at this school. Whether it is griping about an exam, getting class t-shirts, sharing a drink at POETS with your class or working together to understand a difficult concept, the cohort system provides us with experiences that we often take for granted. Most of us come to Waterloo engineering full of excitement. However, we also come scared and unsure of ourselves. The familiarity and friendship of our class helps us overcome obstacles and make life-long memories. Some of my closest friends and greatest memories have come from the time I have spent with my classmates. I came to Waterloo hoping for a good education and some great work experience, when I leave (hopefully some day) I will have achieved this. Many universities can provide this. However, what other universities cannot promise is a strong group of friends that have shared your failures and your successes. I have the cohort system to thank for this.